Digging through history to define Billings’ Alberta Bair Theater

By: Joel Anderson
7 June 2016

In 1987, the city of Billings gutted the last 20th Century Fox art deco theater as an act of preservation to save Billings’ largest performance hall from being divided into a movie theater multiplex. Built in 1931, the architect was Robert Reamer of Old Faithful Inn fame. The 1987 renovation design priorities were placed on seat counts, stage size, and the flexibility to host multiple show types. A difficult decision was made to demolish Billings’ best art deco interior for the ability to bring more significant music and performance artists through town. Twenty-eight years later, in 2015, CTA was brought in to evaluate the building in its current condition and suggest design improvements. We started by looking back to 1931.

Could we restore the pageantry and excitement of attending the Alberta Bair Theater? Pageantry requires character, style, and attention to elevate it above other experiences. Much of the character had been removed with the 1987 renovation, but a few details like the brick chevron cornice remained, so we grasped onto them tightly. Our engineering teams dug through the building, evaluating the structure, mechanical heating and cooling, and electrical systems. Other design issues had to be solved as well, and our team listed five goals for the renovation and expansion:

  1. Expand lobby spaces to better accommodate pre-functions and intermission experiences.
  2. Increase public restroom counts from 22 to 40 by adding restrooms to the ground floor and expanding restrooms on the mezzanine level.
  3. Simplify circulation between floors.
    1. Move upper level circulation from the mezzanine level to the balcony level.
    2. Add an elevator to access new handicap seating on the balcony level.
  4. Improve the show experience by updating furnishings, finishes, fixtures, and equipment.
  5. Create appropriately-located space for sound and lighting.

Our design approach starts with the removal of the 1987 stair “lantern” addition at the southwest corner. Utilizing property gained by the removal of parking spaces on the northwest corner of Broadway and 3rd Avenue, the new lobby and circulation expand out from the original brick structure and are enclosed by a simple glass curtain wall. This gesture of transparency allows us to gently embrace the historical while also allowing the life of an event to spill out into the city. Using the theatrical concept of lighting an object from multiple directions, we suggest draping a “scrim” in front of the curtain wall to control solar loads and act as a public screen for promotional lighting.

The Alberta Bair Theater Board is discussing these options with the City of Billings and potential donors as is reported in this May 24 article in the Billings Gazette. We’re looking forward to further interior study of the performance hall in the future.

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